Interviewee: Laila Michel
Interviewer: Pat Sevikul
Graphic Designer: Maulina Gheananta
My name is Laila Michel and I’m from Bowie, Maryland... it’s like 15 minutes outside of DC. I’m a second year student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. I am the Vice Chair of Administration for the Black Student Union and I swim for the Women’s Varsity Swim and Dive Team. Outside of school, I swim for the Haiti National Swim Team.
What was it like growing up?
I was raised in a predominantly black upper/middle-class area called Prince George’s County, so practically all I saw and knew was black people succeeding. Living in this area allowed me to find a predominantly black summer swim team to race for when I was 5. That experience of community and love inspired me to start swimming year round, and from there it was history. I also attended an all-black elementary and middle school that held its students to high standards of excellence. I was never necessarily taught that I would “have to work twice as hard to get half of what white people had,” so I always walked into rooms expecting to be treated with the same respect as my counterparts. I had a rude awakening in high school when I started at a predominantly white Catholic school, but the diversity of the greater DC area always made me feel safe in the end.
Going to university has been a lot more difficult because the school is not as diverse as it led me on to be and unfortunately, that’s the case with many predominantly white institutions (PWI’s) in the United States. At my school, there are over 6,000 students and only about 250 African Americans on campus. Practically the only time I see black people who aren’t students is when they’re picking up my trash, serving me the cafeteria food, or driving the shuttles I get to class on. I am also the first black woman on my school’s varsity swim team, and the second black person since 1980. There are about 70 people in the swim team. Because of my diverse upbringing, I had never been the only black person in a room doing anything, ever. Now, every day, I was suddenly the only black girl in a room full of about 70 people. It was hard doing the thing I loved and had felt safe in for so long while feeling uncomfortable. I didn’t know how I could talk around them, because I didn’t want them to think I was ghetto. We didn’t have the same sense of humor. They changed so fast in the locker room because they didn’t have to moisturize from head to toe to prevent ashy skin, or put 5 different hair products in their curly hair. Everyone was extremely nice and welcoming, and they knew the situation must have been uncomfortable for me. Nonetheless, it was still a very difficult adjustment.
Being a black woman in the U.S. feels like being in an elite secret society of strong, amazing, beautiful women. It also feels like constantly being let down, or pushed to the side, or ignored while still being expected to show up for others. James Baldwin once said that “being a conscious negro in America is to be in a constant stage of rage,” and I completely agree. Being black and a woman amounts to a very specific type of oppression that is nearly suffocating, but if anyone knows how to fight back, it’s us.
Being the child of a Haitian immigrant has exposed me to the beauty and diversity of the black diaspora. There are so many different cultures, countries, and ways of living in one race! Growing up, my favorite holiday was Thanksgiving because both sides of my family live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We’d eat Haitian food for dinner at my dad’s side, then go see my mom’s family and eat Southern food for dessert!
What personal experiences have you faced with racism?
I’ve had countless experiences with racism. I attended a predominantly white high school and I am currently attending a predominantly white university, so I experience microaggressions almost daily and also occasionally hear a racist remark. Swimming is a predominantly white and historically racist sport. I have been unfairly disqualified from races, been called a monkey on deck, my parents have been followed at swim meets and people would leave lanes when I got in them. As a black woman, many of those unfortunate experiences stem from intersectionality of both race and gender.
Have people treated you any differently since George Floyd’s death?
I got a few sympathetic messages about solidarity from white people over the summer. I told my swim team that I can’t be teammates with people who do not value my life or my human rights, because that’s what Black Lives Matter is truly about. That led to some meaningful conversations, but I can’t necessarily say people have been treating me differently. I haven’t been seeing anyone much because of the pandemic. My parents, however, still work in predominantly white spaces and definitely experienced the white guilt being projected onto them after Floyd’s death.
The typical trend post-Floyd was that white people were calling up their few--or only--black friends, having confessionals about how they’ve been so blind and need to do better, then exhausting the black friend by asking them to come up with solutions for a problem created by white people. Then they would leave the conversation feeling like, “I’ve talked to a black person about race, now I feel better!” Unfortunately, no black lives are directly being improved by a white person becoming self-aware. There is still a wage gap, mass incarceration, poverty, and white supremacy. To emphasize this point, and to protect himself from being exhausted by white people’s questions, my dad literally refused to have any “race conversations” with white people unless they were about concrete actions for progress and change.
What does the BLM movement mean to you?
To me, the movement means life or death. This movement determines whether or not I will be able to move around the world safely with equal opportunity.I don’t want the people I love’s lives to be endangered just because they have brown skin. I want to participate in a fair sport. I want to get a fair education. I want credit to go where credit is due. I literally just want, for me and my people, what was said to be entitled to us in the Declaration: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
How do you feel about the movement starting to gain attention?
I’m relieved and excited about all the good going to stem from this civil unrest. However, I am still frustrated because the attention is long overdue.
It shouldn’t have taken a video of a man being murdered for 10 minutes for people to finally pay attention. This increased attention has also caused the movement to be used as a trendy marketing scheme or a chance for celebrities to perform active allies. But I have faith that we will not lose sight of the real goals and that we will make significant progress.
What do you hope to see in the future?
I want to see white supremacy dismantled. Systemically. Culturally. Internationally. I don’t want to google how racist a country is before I decide to visit. I want black women to be valued and protected. I want African Americans to receive reparations for slavery. I want racial equity demonstrated in concrete actions, not empty words. I know all of this will probably take a long time, but I don’t care. As long as the only direction we are moving is forward.
What can we do to help as non-black people?
Educate yourselves! There are endless books and movies to read and watch. Look up all the questions you have and check your implicit bias. Buy from black-owned businesses, listen to black voices, protect black women. Show up to peaceful protests and sign petitions. Call +1 502-595-2300 and ask them to arrest the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor. Address the racism in your community and have conversations with the people you love. Spread awareness and call out racism, use your privilege for good.
Black people are oppressed all across the world and all Black Lives Matter. So don’t underestimate the impact your participation can make in your country.